« Of interesting around the blogosphere | Main | A worldly perspective on different execution methods »

July 7, 2009

"Open to the public: U.S. Supreme Court should allow broadcast of oral arguments"

The title of this post is the headline of this editorial from my local Columbus Dispatch.  Here are a few excerpts:

Watching and listening as America's top jurists and leading advocates hash out the fine points of the most important issues facing the nation would greatly enhance public understanding of the court.  Broadcasting the oral arguments -- about 75 per year, typically lasting an hour or so -- would open a window into what is probably the least understood part of federal government.

The all-government, all-the-time cable network C-SPAN has been pushing for camera coverage of court proceedings since 1988. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, formerly a Republican, also has urged cameras in the courtroom, twice unsuccessfully introducing legislation to require the court to allow cameras....  Specter, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has put Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Souter, on notice that he'll be asking in her confirmation hearing about her views on the matter.

Law and logic are on the side of openness in courts.  The Constitution requires most court proceedings to be open to the public; in the age of electronic communication, little reason exists for limiting the public to those who can fit into the physical space of the courtroom.

Most state courts, including those in Ohio, have been open to cameras for many years.  The Ohio Supreme Court has been broadcasting its own oral arguments since moving into the renovated Ohio Judicial Center in 2004, and Ohio's Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer considers it a major success, for allowing a greater public understanding of how the court works.

He strongly supports the idea of broadcasting U.S. Supreme Court arguments, calling it "a marvelous educational opportunity" that would impress viewers with the quality of arguments put before the court and questions asked by justices.  "People come from around the world to study our system of justice," Moyer said. "We should be proud of it and show it off."

Speaking as both a law professor and a law blogger, I remain terribly disappointed that the Justices continues to prevent public access to the nation's highest court.  I am hopeful that Senator Specter pushes hard on this front and that Judge Sotomayor becomes a vocal supporter of allowing broadcasting of Supreme Court arguments.

July 7, 2009 at 09:48 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Open to the public: U.S. Supreme Court should allow broadcast of oral arguments" :


The arrogance of the Justices knows no bounds. They are worthless, shiftless, lazy government worker goof offs. Not only should the public arguments get broadcast, but the private deliberations, the personal discussions with staff. I want security cameras in every hall, every office, every bathroom. If one is goofing off, I want to see it to call in a complaint to get back to work. If one is sleeping on duty, I want to call up the guard station to send someone to wake up the doofis.

The public is the client. They have no product privileged from the client.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 7, 2009 10:12:43 AM

Can this be accomplished by passing a law, or does the SC dictate it?

Posted by: . | Jul 7, 2009 10:13:34 AM

The Congress writes the rules for the Supreme Court, its number of justices, its pay, the structure and jurisdictions, and certainly funds it. It started with the Judiciary Act of 1789, which includes the oath of the Justices today.

Congress defers to the Court, because the SC acts as its dog, retrieving unsavory matters from the muck of the swamp of political controversy. So when a member bashes the Court, people in his own party will pressure to stop Court bashing.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 7, 2009 10:22:04 AM

"People come from around the world to study our system of justice"
Actually, if true, I would suggest they come to learn how NOT to construct a system of justice. But I don't disagree that to hear oral argument would be beneficial both to those who want to better understand the processes of the Supreme Court, and to the Justices, who may be encouraged to participate and explain themselves more clearly.

Posted by: peter | Jul 7, 2009 10:42:42 AM

There may be some movement on this now that Justice Souter, the biggest opponent of televised oral argument, has retired from active service.

But I hope not. I do not agree that the Court is "prevent[ing] public access." The transcript of every oral argument is released same day, enabling those educated enough to understand appellate arguments to fully digest them. Only one thing would be added by the televising of oral arguments: soundbites that would allow talking heads to utterly misrepresent the nature of the judicial process and distort justices' evident positions by taking their words out of context. Of course, they could do that even now by quoting transcripts, but they don't, for the simple reason that people who get their news from television want eye and ear candy from the source. Indeed, the fact that the needed information is available but not used is proof positive that it would be used irresponsibly if disseminated in a different medium that we keep hearing is so important.

In short, I'll support televising appellate arguments when there is such a thing as real television journalism in this country, and not a moment before.

I am a staff attorney for a court (but not The Court).

Posted by: Matthew | Jul 7, 2009 10:55:32 AM

Matthew, that is complete nonsense. The value of providing access to information does not turn on whether (in some lawyer's opinion) television journalists are sophisticated enough to process it.

The fact is, the Court has steadily been increasing access to its proceedings, and the Republic has not yet been brought to ruin. The Court already provides tape-delayed audio feeds of particularly noteworthy cases. So, what exactly does the Court gain by waiting a few hours, or by limiting it to just a few cases? And how exactly would the Nation be threatened if there were a live picture to go with it?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 7, 2009 11:46:54 AM

I'm with Matthew on this one. Any time I want to know what happened at an oral argument, I read the transcript that same day. Anyone with access to an internet connection can do so, and there is certainly no "limiting the public" involved.

The article seems to suggest that by putting the arguments on television the public will become better educated about the Court. But, honestly, how many people who don't already understand what and who the Court is (and how they do it) are going to watch C-Span's oral arguments? Has the public's education level about Congress increased quantitatively and qualitatively since broadcast of that institution's proceedings? I would suggest it has, but only nominally.

That being said, I believe there is more harm than good to come from broadcasting Court proceedings. The same cannot be said about broadcasting Congress’s proceedings, whose members are already directly accountable to the audience watching.

Posted by: DEJ | Jul 7, 2009 11:50:01 AM


Except the cases that are most likely to generate those sound bites are the very cases that the court already releases audio for directly after argument. That seems backwards if that is the real concern.

I will however say that the SCOTUS bothers me less on this issue, I would prefer that the district courts be forced into broadcast first. Unlike the SCOTUS where the court spends months on pretty much every case taken, district courts dispose of many issues immediately. The one thing I've gotten out of watching CourtTV is just how boring most proceedings are. I think that would likely be a good thing for people to realize about appelat courts as well. I think there are still many people who have some sort of romantisized idea of what courts do, typified by an episode of Law&Order where SCOTUS heard a case and turned around an opinion that same day. Simply rediculous.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 7, 2009 12:03:40 PM

Perhaps there should be a compromise in which there would, for the time being, be audio but not visual transmission of the arguments. Like every other compromise, no one gets all he wants, but it would be a step toward public access without the degree of danger of lawyer grandstanding that I believe Souter is concerned about.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 7, 2009 12:11:51 PM

Bill Otis's idea makes sense to me. It's one step closer to full public access. If the Court finds (as I believe it will) that no great harm ensues, perhaps it will be open to television coverage at some point in the future.

Justice Souter never said much about this subject, aside from the "over my dead body" comment, but it was believed that he was concerned about his privacy: most people would not recognize him, which means he is able to live a relatively "normal" life apart from the Court. I never thought the grandstanding issue was a serious concern. Lawyers want to win, and I think they would quickly figure out what doesn't work.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 7, 2009 1:55:26 PM

I have listened to audio taped SC oral arguments on C-SPAN. The difference between audio taped questioning and videotaped questioning is that Justice Ginsberg cannot be seen sleeping in the audio recording.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 7, 2009 4:02:51 PM

If C-span provided links to the briefs, and if the briefs linked to relied on authority, it would be a good thing. But lawyers cite precedent and statutes and what have you as relied on authority like we use words, and without understanding those words, it is almost impossible to understand the arguments.

Hopefully it could lead to a more aware public reading briefs and opinions rather than relying on the news for secondary translation.

Posted by: George | Jul 7, 2009 6:16:47 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB